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The Brain Gain: 3 Startups that Moved to Ann Arbor

L to R Russell Conrad and Justin Otani of Ornicept

L to R Hung Truong, Eddie Knight and Ankush Sharma at the Canopy Innovations office

Justin Otani of Ornicept

L to R Brad Koch and Jesse Vollmar at the FarmLogs office

L to R Hung Truong, Eddie Knight and Ankush Sharma at the Canopy Innovations office

L to R Brad Koch and Jesse Vollmar at the FarmLogs office

L to R Jesse Vollmar and Brad Koch at the FarmLogs office

Russell Conrad of Ornicept

Ankush Sharma of Canopy Innovations

Not only a hotspot for brand-new business, Ann Arbor has also begun to attract its fair share of relocated business from outside city - and state - lines. From Commerce Guys, which relocated from Jackson, to HookLogic, which established an Ann Arbor satellite to its New York office, our unique entrepreneurial climate is steadily drawing new blood.

We spoke to three companies who've either moved to Ann Arbor, or established satellite operations here, about why they made the move and how it's suited them so far.

FarmLogs: Finding Farming's Future

Jesse Vollmar's business got its start in Silicon Valley, but in the end Vollmar decided the most sensible location for his startup was in Ann Arbor, only 100 miles from the farm he grew up on.

"The environment in Silicon Valley is so much different from anything you'll see anywhere else in the world," Vollmar says. "It makes sense for most tech startups, but we kind of looked at it and realized that our customers are in the Midwest and we needed to be closer to them."

Vollmar is the CEO and co-founder of FarmLogs, which designs software for farmers to track and forecast profits, plan crops, manage risk and more. Vollmar and co-founder Brad Koch came up with the idea while running a consulting business in their college years at Saginaw Valley State University.

"Some farms in our community started asking us for help because they knew we were good at technology and good at building software," Vollmar says. "We looked at the technology that was available to farmers and realized there was a huge need for improvement. The market is ready. People are realizing that they can't stay on paper and spreadsheets forever."

Vollmar and Koch moved to Mountain View, California's, famed Y Combinator (the original home of Reddit and Dropbox) to get FarmLogs started. After four months in Silicon Valley, they chose Ann Arbor as the business' new Midwest home, for its combination of what Vollmar describes as "access to the startup community and technical talent."

So far, this former farm boy has just one complaint about working in Ann Arbor: the parking situation.

"Silicon Valley is kind of sprawled out, but you can drive yourself to work and get around in a vehicle," Vollmar says. "And growing up on a farm, that certainly wasn't a problem. You could drive around and get wherever you want to. When you're out and about and you're going to meetings in Ann Arbor, it's a little different."

Ornicept: Building A Better Nest

Russell Conard and Justin Otani moved their business to Ann Arbor for family-related reasons, but when they got here the startup found more support than they'd ever dreamed of. The partners moved their startup Ornicept, from Bloomington, Ind., in August to accommodate Conard's wife beginning grad school at the University of Michigan.

"We knew who a lot of the people in the startup world were in Indiana, so we were a little concerned about moving our shop up here," Otani says.

But those fears were assuaged when Otani and Conard learned about Ann Arbor SPARK's business incubator. Conard says the partners were "surprised and maybe even a little skeptical" of SPARK's attractive offerings at first, but they now have glowing praise for the incubator's office space, business advising and other services.

"A lot of incubators are just landlords, and others take you under their wing for the whole process," Otani says. "With SPARK, they've done a good job of striking a middle ground and providing the support we've needed."

Otani, Conard and their first employee (a U-M grad) currently fill three desks at SPARK, from which they're marketing their flagship product: a program that automatically identifies birds from video footage. The software is intended for applications in airports, wind farms and other businesses that must count and identify bird populations. The partners have been enjoying Ann Arbor life so far; Otani says the town has lived up to the positive impression he got from the film The Five-Year Engagement.

"There's a lot of good stuff going on, and a lot of interesting food and other things available to you," he says. "Other than the winter, which looked a little scary. I'm starting to find that out first-hand."

Conard, an avid birder and computer scientist who's created what he calls his "dream job," couldn't be happier to be playing out some real-life version of Jason Segel's role in "Engagement."

"We started off in my basement," he says. "As you can imagine, that's fairly isolating. So being with SPARK and being downtown has really broadened our exposure a lot."

Canopy Innovations/LanguageMate:

When Ankush Sharma interviewed for a job with language-learning software developer LanguageMate in 2011, he thought he was headed for a gig in the Big Apple.

"I got pretty excited about moving to New York," Sharma says.

But as it turned out, the NYC-based company had just secured grant funding to open a new subsidiary, Canopy Innovations, in Ann Arbor. Sharma says several cities had "courted" Canopy, and Ann Arbor won out thanks to offers of support from SPARK, as well as the city's proximity to the U-M health system.

Working solo from SPARK's business incubator for his first few months as Canopy's operations manager, Sharma was tasked with finding office space and putting together a team.

Sharma already had a thorough knowledge of the city, having moved here in 2009 to attend grad school at U-M. After completing his undergrad at UC Berkeley, he says he'd never been to U-M or Ann Arbor before and chose the location based purely on research.

"I made a little matrix and let that choose for me," he says. "I've been here for four years now and it's been pretty great. It's the kind of city where, if you're willing to put up with the cold, there's a lot of great opportunities."

Canopy now has a staff of three working out of an office in Liberty Square, and is currently hiring for two more full-time positions. Sharma says the city has been great to Canopy, praising the "close-knit" local startup community. But he also says he's worried about new companies still flocking to the city, seeking similar success.

"It's a numbers game," Sharma says. "There's a lot of ideas being produced, but are they going to be able to sustain that? I don't know."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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